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John Prepares the Way
People like a good story – they always have and I guess they always will. We were probably read stories as children and now we read them for ourselves in books and magazines; we listen to them on the radio and we watch them on TV. Have you ever noticed how your ears prick up when they hear the words "Once upon a time…" or something similar?
Yes, we all enjoy a good story – it takes us out of the routine of our own lives with all its cares and worries and introduces us, for a while at least, into another world.
But Luke doesn't begin chapter three of his gospel record with a vague "Once upon a time…" instead he gives a list of historical characters and a brief description of who they were and where they operated.
Luke was writing for his friend Theophilus and all these names would have been familiar to him. The same can't be said of us however and we might be lefty wondering what on earth has this got to do with us today. So let me tell you.
In mentioning all these folk Luke is anchoring what he is writing about in real space/time history! The things he is writing about really happened – we are not in the world of make-
And around that year some remarkable things happened – God's long-
So what is it that Luke wants us to understand? What is the first thing he wants to tell us having carefully identified the historical setting? He wants us to know that God spoke! We read in v.2:
"the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness."
Maybe you don't find that very remarkable but it is – after all it means that the One who created all things and who sustains everything that he has made wants to communicate with men and women and boys and girls. So, we should all be very interested to find out just what he said and why.
If you look down to the end of the section (vv.21-
"a voice came from heaven 'You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.'"
Let me explain to you the significance of this. The Christian faith is founded upon this fact that God has broken into the world in which we live and has spoken to us. In other words Christianity is not the result of human endeavour, it is not the fruit of men's spiritual reflection, it is God-
Sadly today many peddle their own ideas and try to pass them off as Christianity but you must not be duped by them. Whose word do you think is more trustworthy – that of men or that of the Almighty Infinite All-
Before the beginning of the Christian era God had spoken to the Jews by the prophets he sent them – John was theologically the last of these OT prophets though chronologically his life and ministry are recorded in the NT. A gigantic shift was about to take place as John began his ministry. The message was about to come no longer in the form of a revelation of ideas to a succession of prophets but it was to come (indeed had now already come!) in the form of a perfect messenger whose very life would flesh out everything that God wants to say to us.
That perfect messenger was Jesus – the Word of God – and John's task was to prepare the way ahead of him.
So having taken notice of the first that God is the One who takes the initiative and speaks we now must turn to think about the one to whom and through whom he spoke.
Again looking at v.2 we read:
"the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness."
The man to whom God speaks is clearly identified – the word of God comes to a specific man – John, the son of Zechariah, -
God knows all about us – he knew all about John the Baptist and where to find him similarly he knows who we are and where we are to be found too.
And as soon as the word of God came to John what an impact it made upon him! John didn't just receive the word as a message from God he acted upon it. And what an example he is to all of us in this regard! The word came to him and he understood it and set about his special ministry of preparing the way of the Lord, a ministry that Isaiah had spoken about hundreds of years earlier and then repeated by his own father shortly after his birth.
Luke recognised that John's ministry was a fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy as he went about the entire region of the Jordan preaching. Specifically John's message was about the need to repent and the need for the forgiveness of sins.
John had been living in a wilderness area and that was true both physically and spiritually – humanly speaking it would have appeared all so unpromising and yet there was hope in the midst of the spiritual darkness. There always is hope when God is at work and it was the word of God that had come to John that now had to be shared.
John as God's servant was energetic, he was enthusiastic and also very courageous. Serving God he wasn't out to try to curry favour with his listeners but he was out to please his God. With such an attitude he told the people not what they wanted to hear but what they needed to hear. Such faithfulness would eventually cost him his life but only after he had accomplished his ministry of "preparing the way of the Lord".
What did this Man of God do for the people of his day and for you?
He told men and women to get ready for the coming of the Lord and he did this by means of his fearless preaching.
By this means he:
Filled in the valleys
He lowered the hills and mountains
Made the crooked ways straight
This is just a poetic way of saying that he removed all kinds of different obstacles that men and women erect in their lives.
Sometimes we feel so low and we imagine we're too bad ever to be forgiven. Then Satan of course exaggerates our views of our own failures so we end up imagining God could never accept us. We're in such a valley and it needs to be filled in.
On other occasions it's just the opposite we're up on the mountain tops and convinced that we're altogether fine as we are and our "hill or mountain" most definitely needs to be lowered or else we will never understand our need of the Saviour.
And sometimes we turn this way or that, racing from one idea to the next in a desperate attempt to find our own way through life's problems. And then we need our way to be straightened out. We need to be shown that the way we're on is the broad road that leads to destruction and there is only one way, a narrow and a hard way, that leads to life, and we must get into that way!
And as John the Baptist went about proclaiming his message his preaching drew crowds to him. They were probably made up of a right motley crew because when they came to John he certainly didn't treat them gently but spoke as though some at least were totally insincere. But how good it was for these people to have the truth applied to them and to have any false hope taken away from them!
John had preached a baptism of repentance and now speaks to those coming for such baptism as though they are "a brood of vipers". It's not a very flattering description is it? And yet to come to John's baptism was closely linked to the idea of fleeing the coming wrath of God. You would only need to flee that wrath if you truly saw yourself as exposed to it. And if you were exposed to it then really you were indeed just like a poisonous snake. If you take offence at being treated as a sinner and being spoken to as a sinner it may be that deep down you simply don't believe that you really are a sinner after all, or that you somehow imagine that sin is nowhere near as dangerous as preachers try to tell you.
Some in the crowd came to John for baptism imagining that all they really needed was a little more religion in their lives. They didn't need to undergo any fundamental change just a few more trappings of religion and they'd be fine – but John will have none of it!!
Repentance must be genuine and heart felt – it must make itself known by the fruit it produces.
Others came trusting in their background – in their case they were glad to be Jews and because Abraham was their ancestor they thought that everything must be alright with them. Now you are probably not a Jew this morning and you're probably not able to trace your family line back to Abraham but you are capable of doing something similar. You're capable of thinking that all is well with you because you're British, because you were christened as a child or because you attend a church. But John won't listen to such reasoning – God can raise children from stones and those who do not bear any proper fruit in their lives will be cut down and destroyed.
Is the fruit of repentance there in your life? Has it ever been?
Do you see what John was doing? He was forcing people to face up to the spiritual state of their lives. Have you ever faced up to the true spiritual state of your life?
The crowds weren't put off by John's apparent brusqueness and different groups plied him with their different questions. In fact their questions were one and the same – how ought they to be living? It was obvious that this would mean different things for the different groups – each group would have its own particular set of weaknesses and temptations. What would "the fruit of repentance" look like in each of their cases?
John gives answers to each group and he shows that not everyone is identical – so don't automatically assume that just because you're not guilty of some of the sins that others have given in to that you are fine yourself. The real question relates to our inward state and which each need to understand what dominates us there.
John deals with three different lifestyles:
Some are comfortable and quite happy to have just that little bit more than the bare minimum – but are they prepared to share what they have with others or are they only looking out for number one?
Some are consumed by the desire to possess more and more money and will stop at nothing to see their bank balances grow. I remember talking to one pastor friend in Cromer: he told me about one shopkeeper he visited and all this man was interested in was making money. When someone's desires become so strong it's always tempting to cut corners with a bit of constructive accounting and sharp practice. But it is incompatible with genuine repentance.
Others are in positions of authority and power – and all too easily such power can be abused to feather one's own nest. John speaks about money here but it doesn't stop there. Jimmy Savile and others have used their celebrity status to cover abusive practices and some got away with it for years. Again all such behaviour is out of line with genuine repentance.
But please don't think that all you have to do is to clean up your own act a bit. Don't imagine that all you must do is to tinker with a bit of a behavioural problem here or there and then God will be pleased with you.
John is most definitely not telling people that by cleaning up their lives they can somehow make themselves acceptable to God – he is only talking about what the fruit of true repentance will look like.
And the crowd realised this – they didn't think that way at all! Instead as John preached and pressed home the need of repentance because of the coming wrath of God the people were led to think about the Messiah, the Christ. And this was exactly what John's ministry was designed to do. As John preached men and women weren't left with the idea that they could sort out their own problems but they began to think about the Saviour that God had promised to send for so long.
The trouble was that the people were still somewhat in the dark. They knew about a Saviour who was to come but they couldn't identify him clearly yet and some wondered whether this John was in fact the Christ!
My friends, it is not enough for you to know that there is a Saviour, a Christ, you too need to be able to identify him correctly and then you must put your faith and trust in him and in no-
Sadly in our world there are many pretenders – there is the health, wealth and prosperity Jesus, there is the Jesus-
In addition to that there are those men who don't hesitate to usurp the position that belongs uniquely to the true Christ of the Scriptures – I have in mind those leaders of the sects that demand unthinking obedience from their adherents, I have in mind the pope who officially sees himself as the vicar of Christ, the representative of Christ on earth.
How important it is for us to correctly identify the only Christ who can save us!
John, true to his ministry of preparing for the coming of the Lord, was careful to leave his hearers in not the slightest doubt. He was John the Baptist and John the Baptist was not the Christ!
Yes, John knew that he had an important role to fulfil in the unfolding of God's plan and purpose of salvation. Yes, he knew that his ministry spoke of cleansing – he preached a water-
He baptised with water but the Christ, the Lord, would baptise with water and with fire. The Spirit would bring new life and create "wheat" as it were. The Spirit would be poured out by this Christ. Nor was that all: fire would be destiny of those that were not wheat but chaff.
John caused quite a stir when he received the word of God and then set about proclaiming its truth. But John was only a signpost – he wasn't the answer to the mankind's spiritual problem but he did help make his hearers aware of their needs, aware of their failures, and he did point away to the Coming One, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
This is what John did for the people of his day. Has he done this for you? It doesn't matter whether it was John's own ministry or someone proclaiming the same truths that John proclaimed but it does matter whether or not you have heard them, whether or not you have understood them, whether or not you have acted upon them! Have you gone to Jesus Christ? Don't stop short of him! Don't settle for a substitute! Don't settle for a religious life! Don't settle for a moral life! Don't settle for a church life! Go all the way to Jesus! He is the good news and he is the One you need.
May we all see the salvation of God in Jesus Christ!